La Fontaine's Fables

Themes of the French ballet Les Animaux modèles, composed by Francis Poulenc, drew inspiration from the 17th century fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Cantigny's 2024 garden beds are a horticultural interpretation of the ballet's six-part orchestral suite. The ballet debuted at the Paris Opera in 1942, when the city was under German occupation. Keeping French art and culture alive lifted spirits and became a form of resistance to the Nazi regime.

Le Petit Jour (Dawn)

Idea Garden

The ballet’s calming opening movement, Dawn, is represented by the sun amid blooms in shades of lavender and peach. French impressionist Edgar Degas used the colors in his “Two Dancers” paintings. Robert and Amy McCormick owned Degas’ “Two Dancers”. Robert donated it to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1942.

Listen: Le Petit Jour

Le Lion amoureaux (The Lion in Love)

Upper Garden Inner Ring

The ballet’s second musical movement, The Lion in Love, is suggested in the Inner Ring. Three steel frame topiaries of the father, young daughter and the lion are displayed among plants that symbolize the teeth, claws, and blood of the lion that are sacrificed in vain for his love of the daughter.


About the Fable

In “The Lion in Love,” a lion falls in love with a pretty shepherdess. Instead of acting like a fierce lion, he tries to be nice and show his love to her. But the shepherdess is scared and runs away from him to her home. No matter how hard the lion tries, his scary size and strength only make the shepherdess more afraid.

The lion’s attempt to forsake his predatory instincts and adopt a gentler demeanor for the sake of love ultimately proves futile, as he fails to recognize that genuine love cannot be built on fear or manipulation. It’s important to understand boundaries and know that real love is about being yourself and respecting each other.

Listen: Le Lion amoureaux

L’Homme entre deux âges et ses deux maîtresses (The Man with Two Mistresses)

Lower Display Garden
The scene in the Lower Display Garden portrays the ballet’s third movement, The Man with Two Mistresses. Plantings around the three figures represent the man’s salt-and-pepper hair, the youthfulness of the young mistress (pastel blooms), and the age of the older woman (dark foliage and purple flowers). Note the colored wires in the mistresses’ hands. The younger woman is plucking the gray hair from the man and the older woman is plucking the dark hair.

About the Fable

In “The Man with Two Mistresses,” a man gets himself into a tricky situation by trying to please two women at once. He juggles between them, trying to make each one happy without the other finding out. But his plan falls apart when one of the women becomes jealous and suspicious. Then, the man falls ill and both mistresses come to see him. Instead of being sympathetic, they start arguing over him. The man’s dishonesty has caused trouble, and trying to keep both women happy only leads to his downfall.

Through this story, La Fontaine teaches us about the dangers of deceit and maintaining relationships built on lies. The man’s attempt to deceive both mistresses ends badly, showing us the importance of honesty and integrity in relationships. The fable suggests that real connections are based on loyalty and openness.

Listen: L’Homme entre deux âges et ses deux maîtresses

La Mort et le bûcheron (Death and the Woodcutter)

Idea Garden

Circular beds depict the ballet’s fourth movement, Death and the Woodcutter. The death figure is in the upper planter amid blackish foliage provided by ornamental pepper. His cloak moves easily in the breeze. The sticks are the “burden” of the woodcutter.

About the Fable

In “Death and the Woodcutter,” a man named Gervais cuts wood for a living. He’s happy with his simple life. One day, he meets Death in the forest. Death is surprised that Gervais isn’t scared of him. Death talks to Gervais, offering him money and power if he gives up his soul. But Gervais says no. He likes his life just the way it is. Death is impressed by Gervais’s honesty and leaves him alone. Gervais keeps living happily, showing us that being true to yourself is more important than being rich or powerful.

Listen: La Mort et le bûcheron

Le Combat des deux coqs (The Battle of the Two Roosters)

Octagon Garden

The fifth movement of the ballet, Battle of the Two Roosters, is portrayed in the Octagon Garden. The winning rooster is crowing from atop the wisteria arbor. The loser perches on a stump, head lowered. But beware, a hungry eagle is watching from the hedge, ready to swoop in and capture the arrogant fowl. Colors, forms, and textures of the flowers and grasses complement the drama.

About the Fable

In “The Battle of the Two Roosters,” two roosters engage in a fierce rivalry for dominance. Chanticleer, the reigning rooster, is proud of his strength and vocal abilities, while Renard, a younger challenger, seeks to dethrone him. The two roosters engage in a heated battle, each attempting to prove his superiority through displays of crowing prowess. Despite Renard’s best efforts, Chanticleer emerges victorious, reaffirming his position as the rightful leader of the barnyard.

Through this fable, La Fontaine explores themes of pride, rivalry, and the natural order of hierarchy. The battle between Chanticleer and Renard serves as a metaphor for human conflicts and power struggles, highlighting the folly of challenging established authority without sufficient merit or strength. Ultimately, the fable emphasizes the importance of humility and respect in maintaining harmony within social structures.

Listen: Le Combat des deux coqs

Le Repas de midi (Midday Lunch)

Idea Garden

The ballet’s final movement, Midday Lunch, is represented in the Idea Garden. Employing the gardening style of the potager (used by the ‘sans-culottes’ or French peasants of the 18th century), the bed is filled with edible and ornamental flowers alongside vegetables. A pauper’s lunch is served!

Listen: Le Repas de midi